2011 Senior Bowl
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MOBILE, Ala. — None of the six tight ends at the Senior Bowl will replicate what Jermaine Gresham did last year and get drafted in the first round. In fact, likely the best tight end in the draft, Kyle Rudolph, isn't even here.
But because of the success of the rookie tight ends in 2010, there's a good chance that fliers will be taken on this group earlier than in years past, as the TE position has proved to be significant for offenses. Among the top 10 rookies in receiving yards last season, four were tight ends. Six rookie tight ends caught at least three touchdowns. The four most productive were Gresham, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Tony Moeaki.
"The more and more tight ends are successful, the more it gives us young bucks a chance to be successful," said Marshall TE Lee Smith. "The farther you go in the playoffs, there's usually a good tight end. Those guys are setting the stage for us."
"I'm guessing (we) would be attractive for other coaches or GMs to look at (considering) the production these tight ends have made," said Arkansas TE D.J. Williams.
Wisconsin TE Lance Kendricks, probably the fastest of the three, went to a school known for grooming tight ends. He credited Garrett Graham and Travis Beckum for some of his skills and also noticed how the rookies fared at his position this season.
"Moeaki had a real good season," he said about his former Big Ten counterpart. "That's what I'd like to do in my first year."
The Senior Bowl allows scouts to look at a guy like Smith, who admits he's "not Aaron Hernandez," but a "Y," with his biggest strength in the blocking game. And there are the pass catchers, like Kendricks and Williams. But what every tight end here wants to do is show scouts that he can do both, like Gronkowski, who caught 10 touchdown passes and was one of the Patriots' better run blockers.
"The more they can show some versatility, the better off they'll be," said Bengals TE coach Jonathan Hayes. "There's still a place for guys who can block and be pounders and all those things. It's important that they put their best foot forward and show what they have to compete at the high level."
"Obviously, catching the football is my strength, but I want to show my versatility, not just being able to catch the football but being able to line up wherever on the football field," said Williams.
Kendricks also mentioned his versatility as something he wanted to show off, saying he wanted to make big plays in both pass catching and run blocking.
Smith was very honest about his skills and makeup as a tight end.
"My biggest strength is in the run game, in the blocking game. I'm 270 pounds. I can also contribute in the pass game, but I am what I am, I do what a 270-pound tight end does," he said.
The guy here who has the most versatility is Tennessee TE Luke Stocker, the highest-rated senior tight end. Stocker says he is focusing on the pass-catching part of his game this week.
"(Scouts) want to see me get into my breaks and create separation. It's not that I haven't done it in the past, but they want to see me do it against some of the best players in the nation," he said.
Stocker has really impressed this week and is the best tight end in Mobile. He made a highlight-reel, one-handed grab in Wednesday's practice. He understands that as a tight end, he can prove valuable to an NFL team.
"The value of the position increases a bit as you see more and more tight ends playing a critical role in the offense and having success with it," he said. "More teams will start to buy into that a little bit and use two- and three-TE sets like the Patriots did."
The TE position is a bit different today than it was when Hayes played. He laughed when asked about how the position has changed, with more tight ends being involved in the passing game, but emphasized how he's working with the seniors this week at their blocking.
"(In the NFL), you play a lot more in the backfield. You have to understand protections and hots. I know a lot of offenses, ours in particular, where the tight end has to know the front end and the back end, the receiving end and the protections," said Hayes. "The protections are a major part of what we do. You have to be tuned in and aware of what you need to do."
Like many of the players here, the tight ends were stars in their college days, and Hayes works with them on realizing they can't get away with some of their college habits in the pros.
"I got to get my butt lower," Smith said. "It's easy in college to get away with your strength. (Coach Hayes') thing is, I'm not the biggest dog in the park anymore."
The tight end is now a significant position in the NFL, and a good tight end can be a major asset for an offense. Williams said he was excited to see a Sports Illustrated article recently about the H-back. "I was like, 'That's what I'm talking about. That's my expertise,' " he said.
The tight ends here will try to show scouts and coaches over the next few months that they can do it all — run-block, pass-protect and be a seam threat or red-zone threat in the passing game. Williams went as far as to compare it to Wesley Snipes' character in the movie "Blade" — in other words, a "daywalker."
This class won't have as much production as the TE class of 2010, but because of those before them, the draft stocks of these players might be a little higher as teams realize the value of having a good tight end and their ability to contribute right away.